In Bright Particular Stars, David McKie examines the impact of twenty-six remarkable British eccentrics on twenty-six unremarkable British locations. From Broadway in the Cotswolds, where the Victorian bibliomaniac Sir Thomas Phillipps nurtured dreams of possessing every book in the world, to Kilwinning in Scotland, where in 1839 the Earl of Eglinton mounted a tournament that was Renaissance in its extravagance and disastrous in its execution, McKie leads us to places transformed, inspired and sometimes scandalized by the obsessional endeavours of visionary mavericks.
Some of McKie's eccentrics, such as Mary Macarthur, who helped the women chainmakers of Cradley Heath win the right to a fair wage in 1910, were good to the point of saintliness; others, including the composer Peter Heseltine, who in the 1920s set net curtains twitching by his hard drinking and naked motorbike riding, rather less so. But together their fascinating stories illuminate some of the most secret and most extraordinary byways of our national and local history.
In Bright Particular Stars quiet, unassuming streetscapes become sites of eccentric and uproarious sites of action. The triumphs and failures of the visionaries who thus transformed them - recaptured here by David McKie in vivid and beguiling fashion - have each, in their own way, helped shape our island's rich and chequered history.
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Bright Particular Stars
A Gallery of Glorious British Eccentrics
By David McKie
Grove Atlantic LtdCopyright © 2011 David McKie
All rights reserved.
LOWER LYDBROOK, GLOUCESTERSHIRE
WILLIAM GILPIN EXAMINES THE RIVER WYE AND THOUGH FINDING IT ON THE WHOLE SATISFACTORY THINKS THE RUINS OF TINTERN COULD BE IMPROVED BY AMENDMENT.
* * *
Had they known who he was and what he was up to, the more aesthetically sensitive of Lydbrook's villagers might have witnessed with some trepidation the progress of the scholarly sharp-chinned gentleman who was training his critical eye on their waterfront ...
There are cars from Bristol and Birmingham, from Leeds and Sheffield, from Caerphilly and Laugharne in South Wales, parked on the forecourt of the Courtfield Arms. Across the road where the wharf used to be – today it's replaced by a couple of car parks and a prim little garden – a Roma-home caravette has arrived and settled alongside a little saloon from Evesham. A rather bigger number from Newton Abbot, Devon, has a canoe strapped to the top which will soon be down in the water, alongside a host of already active canoes out on the Wye on this warm June morning as it flows peaceably west towards Monmouth and thence to the Severn Estuary and the sea. It's too early for the holiday coaches of high summer, but they too will be thronging this valley a few weeks from now.
Tucked away in the trees a little way down the road towards English Bicknor, where a railway junction and a mighty viaduct used to be, there is still an industrial site, patrolled by a security man who, if you peer through the fencing, will ask a little suspiciously if he can help. But it's derelict and abandoned, with a comprehensive array of shattered windows and, despite the hopeful advertisements proclaiming the availability of an industrial warehouse site, it looks set to remain that way. Up the hill past the Forge Hammer Inn, on a road where a company tramway used to bring coals from the Forest of Dean down to the waterfront, there is still a sense of industrial Britain; but even here, it's unlikely that anyone stopping to take a break before climbing back on a Wallace Arnold would find this scene reminiscent of Sheffield.
Yet that was a comparison quite solemnly advanced in the early years of the nineteenth century. Here, as along much of the river from Ross to Monmouth and on to Chepstow, there were forges, blast furnaces and foundries, collieries and copper works, paper mills and shipbuilding yards and throngs of busy boats on the river – a world at work to command the eye and assault the ear. This area could claim to be as much the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution as Ironbridge on the Severn, where those times are so vividly and proudly commemorated. But that was all before the Reverend William Gilpin paid the Wye a visit which would help to create for it an image of an utterly different kind.
Had they known who he was and what he was up to, the more aesthetically sensitive of Lydbrook's villagers might have witnessed with some trepidation on that warm summer day in 1770 the progress of the scholarly, sharp-chinned gentleman who, comfortably ensconced in a boat propelled by three sweating plebeians, was training his critical eye on their waterfront. And what in fact was he up to? We now know, from the book he later produced – Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, &c. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770, by William Gilpin, M.A. – that Gilpin was grading the river and countryside, mile by mile, field by field, to measure its picturesqueness against a set of scholarly rules devised by himself.
The Reverend Mr Gilpin was a pedagogue (once headmaster of Cheam School in Surrey) and a pedant. He would come on both counts to be gently mocked by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey and gleefully ridiculed by the cartoonist Thomas Rowlandson and the satirist William Combe, who portrayed him as 'Dr Syntax', sketching a lake from the back of his scrawny horse while a yokel with a fishing rod gawps at this curious spectacle, or so obsessed with the detail of the ruin that he is drawing that he tumbles backwards into the water: a man simply out of touch with the way that most of us live and behave. Even so, this journey along the Wye, and the various excursions with which he followed it, changed the way that people looked at the landscape and responded to what they saw; and one day would bring thousands by sightseeing car and coach to places like Lower Lydbrook.
The notion of the picturesque that he sought to define has since been degraded to mean nothing more than pretty. Jocular coves in saloon bars, puffing on sturdy pipes, used to say of some chocolate box scene: 'very pictureskew!' Recognizing the picturesque in the Gilpin sense, however, demanded something more than a glow in one's heart and a pleasing sense of one's aesthetic sensitivity. Once a schoolmaster, always a schoolmaster. The landscape, he teaches, must be assessed on a series of tests which appear to depend on science as much as on art. As he surveys the woods and the rocks and the craggy cliffs and the waterside villages on his journey, Gilpin seems compulsively set on giving them marks out of ten – or, more likely in his case, on a scale from alpha to gamma. Despite his love and respect for nature, he cannot conceal the unfortunate truth that it does not always live up to Gilpinesque standards. Where it falls short, it has to be warned of its failings. Nature, he says at one point, 'is an admirable colourist ... and harmonizes tints with infinite variety and beauty; but this is seldom so correct in composition, as to produce a harmonious whole'. 'Could do better,' he seems to be saying.
The most perfect river views, he asserts at the start of the book, depend on the area: the river itself; two side-screens (the banks of the river); and the front screen, which points out the winding of the river. As readers in Lydbrook must have been delighted to hear when his book was eventually published in 1782, for the contrast of its screens, and the fading of side-screens over each other, the Wye scores well in this context. Additional marks are awarded by these criteria for what he calls ornaments, such as the ground, the woods, the rocks and the buildings in the vicinity; these last, as he stipulates, should be abbeys, castles, villages, spires, forges, mills and bridges – 'venerable vestiges of the past or cheerful habitations of present times'. None of them, though, is essential: 'In pursuing the beauties of nature, we can be amused without them.' Trees down to the water's edge are commendable, but not mandatory, since as a man accustomed to travel by boat he has to accept that they may constitute a danger to navigation. Marks are deducted where cornfields run right down to the river, since a riverside pasturage is more picturesque, and bonus points accrue where cattle are 'laving themselves' in the river.
Ross-on-Wye, where he starts his journey, fails to meet his requirements. He accepts that the view from the churchyard is much admired, and indeed, is 'amusing', but it doesn't deserve to be called picturesque. 'It is marked by no characteristic objects; it is broken into too many parts; and it is seen from too high a point.' But Goodrich, a little down river, with its rugged ruined castle, is a different matter entirely. 'A grand view', he says, 'presented itself; and we rested on our oars [though that seems to imply that Gilpin was rowing himself, which is unlikely] to examine it. This view, which is one of the grandest on the river, I should not scruple to call correctly picturesque'. A straight alpha for Goodrich, I think. Unfortunately it was raining so hard at this point that Gilpin's hopes of climbing out to explore were thwarted.
The highlight of the journey, one tends to assume, must surely be the historic, romantic, melancholy ruined abbey at Tintern. But that is to underestimate this traveller's rigour. There is quite a lot wrong with Tintern. Though he's not a believer in neatness for neatness' sake, he finds the huddle of hovel houses around the abbey offensive – and not just to aesthetic taste. He deplores the poverty and wretchedness of inhabitants in little huts clustered about the ruins who have no employment but begging. To his admitted surprise, Gilpin is moved and disturbed by what he sees. 'One poor woman we followed, who had engaged to shew us the monks' library. She could scarcely crawl; shuffling along her palsied limbs and meagre contracted body by the help of two sticks. She led us through an old gate into a place overspread with nettles and briars; and pointing to the remnant of a shattered cloister, told us that was the place. It was her own mansion. All indeed she meant to tell us was the story of her own wretchedness; and all she had to shew us was her own miserable habitation ... I never saw so loathsome a human dwelling. It was a cavern loftily vaulted between two ruined walls, which streamed with various coloured stains of unwholesome dews. The floor was earth, yielding through moisture to the tread. Not the merest utensil or furniture of any kind appeared, but a wretched bedstead, spread with a few rags, and drawn into the middle of the cell to prevent its receiving the damp which trickled down the walls. At one end was an aperture, which served just to let in light enough to discover the wretchedness within ...'
Still, surely the abbey ruin cannot fail to give satisfaction? Not so. 'The abbey does not make that appearance as a distant object which we expected ... Though the parts are beautiful, the whole is ill-shaped ... a number of gable-ends hurt the eye with regularity and disgust it by the vulgarity of their shape.' At which point he unleashes perhaps the most famous sentence he ever produced: 'A mallet judiciously used (but who durst use it?) might be of service in fracturing some of them; particularly those of the cross aisles, which are both disagreeable in themselves, and confound the perspective.' He does, however, give high marks to the ivy that has gathered over the structure, while parts of the abbey's interior are praised as 'perfection'.
The Reverend Mr Gilpin, as this sequence establishes, can be a hard man to satisfy. Yet the fact that this is a place not just of abbeysand castles but of forges and mills pleases him more than his reputation might have suggested. Some sensitive visitors seem to have edited that out of their consciousness. William Wordsworth, returning to the valley in 1798 after a five-year absence, marvelling as before at the beauty of sounding cataract, mountain, and steep and gloomy wood, was at this point aware in this place, as he had not been in his younger more impulsive and passionate days, of the 'still, sad music of humanity'. Yet even now, the natural business of humanity has little place in his picture. Though it is sometimes portrayed as a meditation brought on by the prospect of Tintern, the title of Wordsworth's poem says otherwise: these are 'Lines composed a few miles above Tintern Abbey' – possibly, modern research suggests, as far upriver as Symonds Yat. So he may have been right when he attributes 'wreaths of smoke sent up, in silence, from among the trees' to vagrants camped out in the woods or even a hermit's cave. Yet along the valley generally, the abundant wreaths of smoke which greeted the visitor may have had rather more to do with ugly old manufacturing. Tintern itself in those times had forges and wireworks and mills and blast furnaces – relics of that can still be seen on roads that run west into Monmouthshire. Gilpin, free from the selective myopia that affected some of those who followed him into this territory, acknowledges their presence, not with bursting enthusiasm, certainly, but with none of the repugnance that the huddled houses bred in him.
As for the busy, even clamorous scenes he surveyed from his boat at Lydbrook – the forge, the cornmills, the tinplate works and the working boats on the Wye – they positively delighted him. 'At Lidbroke is a large wharf, where coals are shipped to Hereford and other places. Here the scene is new and pleasing. All has thus far been grandeur and tranquillity. It continues so yet; but mixed with life and bustle. A road runs diagonally along the bank; and houses and carts appear passing to the small vessels which lie against the wharf to receive their burdens. Close behind, a rich woody hill hangs sloping over the wharf; and forms a grand background to the whole. The contrast of all this business, the engines used in lading and unlading, together with the variety of the scene, produce altogether, a picturesque assemblage. The sloping hill is the front screen; the two side-screens are low. But soon the front screen becomes a lofty side-screen on the left; and sweeping round the eye at Welsh Bicknor, forms a noble amphitheatre ...' This is man and nature combining to earn the master's ultimate accolade: a rating as truly, fully paid-up, picturesque.
It's at moments like this that one sees how inclusive and unpedantic is Gilpin's sense of the picturesque, how far it transcends the merely pretty, how fundamentally it differs from the common unthinking assumption that unless the sun is high in a cloudless sky, beauty is dimmed. The rain that fell on our traveller at Goodrich may have been inconvenient – 'yet the picturesque eye ... in quest of beauty, finds it almost in every incident and under every appearance.' Though it hid greater beauties, causing the loss of broad lights and deep shadows, 'it gave a gloomy grandeur to many of the scenes.' Even the sightseer's ancient enemy, fog, qualifies in certain contexts for a nod of approval.
Other subsequent compilers of guides to the Wye took the same liberal line. Here is Charles Heath: 'On the right side of the river, the bank forms a woody amphitheatre, following the course of the stream round the promontory. Its lower skirts are adorned with a hamlet, in the midst of which volumes of thick smoke, thrown up at intervals from an iron forge, as its fires receive fresh fuel, add a double grandeur to the scene.' Or Thomas Whately (sometimes spelled Wheatley) at New Weir, lauding the operation of engines: 'machinery, especially, when its powers are stupendous, or its effects formidable, is an effort of art which may be accommodated to the extravagancies of nature'. The mood of this and other zetetic reflections is nicely caught in a paper by C. S. Matheson, Enchanting Ruin: Tintern Abbey and Romantic Tourism in Wales, which I found on a University of Michigan website: 'It was common', she says, 'for tourists to visit the natural, industrial and archaeological sites of Tintern in sequence. The industrial sublime thus qualified the architectural sublime of the Abbey and the picturesque features of its setting. Tintern's industrial patrimony (reaching back, in fact, to the ancient iron works in the hills around the village) is a crucial element in the valuation and experience of the Abbey in the period. To Romantic viewers, the contrast between the frantic activity and clamor of the foundries, and the old silences of the Abbey was just the touch needed to push poignancy into better-grade melancholy.'
Below Tintern, Gilpin lost his taste for the Wye. He found the river 'ouzy'. He admired the estate created by a local Croesus, Valentine Morris, at Chepstow – Piercefield, where the racecourse is today – for he had a taste for landscape that was designed as well as for that which was natural and unpremeditated; though Morris's shrubberies were not to his taste. He hurried back through Monmouth and on into deeper Wales, which he found decreasingly praiseworthy as he hurried westward.
Gilpin was not the first to discover the Wye Valley and analyse and chronicle its romantic attractions. In 1750 Dr Egerton, then Rector of Ross, later bishop of Durham, and his wife used to entertain guests with boat trips along the river, while James Evans, a basketmaker of Ross, hired out boats from 1760 onwards. Even so, it was Gilpin who made it a classic home excursion, especially when the Napoleonic Wars forbade the Grand Tour, teaching travellers to look for beauty at home as well as across the Channel. As the younger Pliny says: 'ea sub oculis posita neglegimus, seu quia ita natura comparatum, ut proximorum incuriosi longinqua sectemur', which M. Willett, author of yet another Wye Valley travelogue, The Strangers' Guide to the Banks of the Wye, handily translates as follows: 'Abroad to see the world the traveller goes, / And neglects the fine things which lie under his nose' – a judgement as true today as the day it was written. That the valley draws the world as it does today, as a place to enjoy an alpha-class landscape while luxuriously succumbing to better-grade melancholy among the unmalleted ruins at Tintern, is very much Gilpin's legacy.
Excerpted from Bright Particular Stars by David McKie. Copyright © 2011 David McKie. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 LOWER LYDBROOK, GLOUCESTERSHIRE,
2 LLANDEILO, CARMARTHENSHIRE,
3 BISHOPS CANNINGS, WILTSHIRE,
4 TIDESWELL, DERBYSHIRE,
5 CRANE COURT, LONDON,
7 KILWINNING, AYRSHIRE,
8 BROADWAY, WORCESTERSHIRE,
9 CHELTENHAM, GLOUCESTERSHIRE,
10 AUSTREY, WARWICKSHIRE,
13 NINE ELMS, LONDON,
14 BLOOMSBURY, LONDON,
16 GILLINGHAM, KENT,
17 SPITALFIELDS, LONDON,
18 CRADLEY HEATH, STAFFORDSHIRE,
19 SHOREHAM BEACH, SUSSEX,
20 EYNSFORD, KENT,
21 DRAYTON MANOR, STAFFORDSHIRE,
22 BOOSBECK, CLEVELAND,
23 NORTH END, HAMPSTEAD,
24 TROWELL, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE,
25 HORSHAM, SUSSEX,
26 RENDLESHAM, SUFFOLK,
Sources and Further Reading,